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Study: Military Policy on Gays Unfounded

Harvard research shows ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ does not protect privacy

By Elizabeth S. Widdicombe, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Opponents of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy have a new form of ammunition—a study that appeared last month in a journal edited at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The study challenges the logic behind the privacy rationale—the idea that banning gays from military service is necessary to protect the privacy of heterosexuals in barracks and showers.

Because many heterosexuals and known homosexuals in the military already shower and share living quarters, changing the policy would not have an effect on the privacy of military personnel—and may, in fact, do more to protect the privacy of both, according to the study.

The study is one of the first to address the privacy rationale for the military’s policy, according to Aaron Belkin, a co-author of the study and director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

And several gay and civil rights advocacy groups, such as the Service Member Legal Defense Network and Human Rights Campaign, may incorporate it into their criticisms of military policies on homosexuals, he said.

The Belfer Center’s journal, International Security, which typically focuses on larger-scale security affairs, decided to publish the article because it offers a “forceful argument” that advances the debate on a rather controversial military policy, said Sean M. Lynn-Jones, the journal’s managing editor.

“There’s no doubt that the debate over the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is an important part of international security, because it pertains to U.S. military personnel,” he said.

According to Belkin, earlier defenses of the policy were based on the theory of “unit cohesion,” which says that allowing open gays to join the military would break down trust in groups, causing them to perform badly.

“In other words,” Belkin said, “it argues that straight people don’t like to be around gay people, and that will hurt performance.”

In light of recent research that has attempted to discredit this argument, many proponents of the current policy have begun to cite privacy as its main purpose.

Lifting the ban on gays in the military will not necessarily lead to more people coming out of the closet, the study says.

And it may protect privacy, because, the study says, the current military policy mandates investigations into peoples’ sexual orientation that can often be “invasive.”

The authors also said the privacy rationale will soon become less relevant, with a planned military barracks construction program giving most men and women private baths and bedrooms within the next few years.

At the Law School, those who participated in protests this fall against the school’s decision to allow military recruiters on campus—calling the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy discriminatory—said the study’s findings came as no surprise.

“It seems absurd that one would even have to do a study to prove the common sense view that the privacy argument has no legs,” said Heather K. Gerken, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School (HLS).

Gerken worked closely with Lambda, the Law School’s support group for gay and lesbian students, and was a featured speaker in a protest rally against the new recruiting policy in October.

“The policy is based on the stereotype that gays and lesbians are somehow predators,” she said. “Stating the proposition alone should be enough to disprove it.”

Derek C. Araujo ’99, a second-year student at HLS who is a member of Lambda, called the military’s ban on gays “ineffective.”

“In the long run it just undermines the military,” he said. “There are members of Lambda who would love to serve, and it’s a shame they’re turning people away.”

Lt. Cynthia Colin, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, declined to comment on the debate surrounding the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“We look at sexual orientation as a private matter,” she said. “We try [to] discourage any type of harassment and make sure that our commanders enforce the policy that is in place.”

The study, “A Modest Proposal: Privacy as a Flawed Rational for the Exclusion of Gays and Lesbians from the U.S. Military,” was published in the Fall 2002 edition of International Security, which subscribers received last month.

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